Guilt Trip

She’s a welcoming sight in her favourite velvet skirt and her usual burgundy red smile. In front of her are two glasses of white wine, misty on the outside from the cold condensation and fingerprinted at their bases from her fiddling.

‘Will you hate me if I say I knew you’d come?’ she asks.

‘Not forever.’ I assure her.

‘Cheers,’ she offers, her fingers curling exquisitely around the stem of her glass.

‘To us,’ I say.

But my glass stays on the granite top of the bar and hers is lost somewhere between us as I take her powdery face in my hands and kiss her.

‘We’re in public,’ she mumbles.

‘And in fourteen hours we’ll be in Tokyo,’ I tell her. ‘And I’ll kiss you there, too.’

She pulls me into her then and her lips find my neck and my ears and the top of my chest. This woman, like water, is cool and fresh with diamond eyes that fill and glitter.

‘Every day I want to drink you,’ she says. ‘That doesn’t make sense, I know it doesn’t.’

‘I want to drink you, too,’ I reply.

With pure and unbreaking eye-contact we sit on the high leather stools and drink the wine. When the man in the green waistcoat asks if he can get us anything else I say, ‘the same again, please.’

‘I’m so impressed by you,’ she says. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘Good.’

‘Guilty?’ she asks.

‘Yes,’ I tell her honestly, ‘but we knew that would happen.’

‘We did.’

‘I wasn’t happy with him. I haven’t been for such a long time.’

She says nothing. She knows I am only talking to myself and she lets me.

‘He wasn’t good to me.’

‘Sweetheart, he was awful,’ she says, slowly, carefully.

‘Look,’ she says, glancing up at the board. ‘Gate fifty. Are you ready?’

‘Very much.’

What was once my husband’s backpack, I swing over my shoulder.

‘Wait,’ she calls, a little too loudly. She tips what was left from the glasses onto a black serviette and twists my arm sharply towards her. Our eyes met, but only for a second, because I think, in each other’s eyes, we see something that suddenly isn’t easy anymore.

I watch, as she scrubs dry crimson red off the inside of my wrist.

‘Okay,’ she breathes.

 

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Guiding Light: Part I

His hands shake – and he feels sure his lips do, too. The cold 9 O’clock air wraps its thin fingers around Will’s hot face and makes his eyes water; or is that the smoke? He inhales again, desperately concentrating on not coughing. Nicotine sings through his veins and drowns  him in giddiness. He takes another breath in. Straight air this time. Cold and harsh, it stables him. He looks down at the cigarette in his hand being squeezed a little too tightly between his bitten fingernails. He watches the orange embers very slowly crawling their way up towards the filter.

Across the road and two houses down, a hallway light flicks yellow. She is here. First he sees the hot pink of her dressing gown, then her jeans poking out of the bottom and then her matted, once baby blue slippers. With cartoons on. He thinks he’s decided that they’re Snoopy (although he can’t be sure). Even with his thick lens glasses, he falls short of seeing everything he wants to. Her long dark hair is pulled back into a ponytail which has slacked a little since six o’clock when she got home. She tugs her cigarettes out of her tight jeans pocket. Sterling superkings. The same brand Will smokes.

She holds the cigarette in her mouth and uses both hands to type something out on her phone. Occasionally she will remove it while she reflects upon what is on her screen. Will wonders what she is doing. He likes to imagine she is posting on Facebook. Comments about looking for love and how she’s waiting for the right man (man, not boy). Will was a man. He wishes he was her friend on Facebook so that he could know. But then he’d have to make an account and that would be weird. She wouldn’t accept his request if he didn’t have any other friends. So instead he just watches. His mind taking thousands of pictures that he can lose himself in later. But not now. Now he must just concentrate on not coughing.

It’s Thursday tomorrow which means she’s at work again. His mind flicks through her file. Thursday shift at Superdrug, 10am until 4.30pm. He wishes he could go in and see her but he knows he cannot. He went last week. Three times. The first time she was friendly. He had dropped his items down on the counter, his eyes never leaving hers. Orange juice, Coca Cola, blackcurrant Ribena, strawberry Ribena.

‘Thirsty much?’ She smiled.

What was he supposed to say to that? He had done the only thing he could. Kept his lips tightly sealed, handed over his exact pre-counted change and got out of there as quickly as possible. The second time he went in, he had chosen toothpaste. That was a good decision. Nobody can joke about toothpaste. He didn’t need toothpaste, but he could keep it for a spare. A second spare. But on that day her beautiful face was grey. Black circles around her eyes had stolen Monday’s smile. Will wished he could have said something funny. Or kind. But as a different cashier called him over he didn’t even get the chance. He felt sure he could have cheered her up if he’d have got her. The day after she was back to normal. He walked around the shop for a long time trying to decide what to buy. Planning different scenarios of things she might say. Thinking up great come-backs for the thirsty remark on Monday. It was of paramount importance that he was charming that day. After forty-five minutes he decided on tissues. Tissues display sensitivity. And girls think sensitive is good, he confirmed with himself. Tissues were a good decision. Deep breaths. He smelled cigarettes on his clothes from the night before and it made him feel sick so he breathed hard, but shallower. She called him over.

‘Would you like a bag for that?’

Will was pleased. He thought she might ask this and he had prepared an answer.

‘No thank you very much. I have brought my own.’

He promptly pulled a Morrsions carrier out of his parka pocket and packed the tissues away. He wondered if she noticed that they were tissues. It was important for her to know that he is sensitive. He panicked. She did notice, didn’t she?

‘I go through so many tissues’ he blurted.

‘You what, mate?’ her face screwed up horribly tight.

What did he do wrong? Why didn’t she understand?

‘I get very sensitive!’

‘If you don’t piss off I’m going to call my manager, you fucking pervert. Go!’

Will’s chest felt like it was on fire. He didn’t understand. He felt a tingle run from either side of his nose and around his head and building up behind his eyes. And then he felt water running down his cheeks.

He told himself to move.

‘Left then right,’ he told his converse. In his mind, he had performed better than he had on Monday. Halfway out of the shop he stopped. He steadied himself. He had one more chance to impress with his three day old response.

‘Hydration is of upmost importance!’

Her or Me?

I’m shutting out (or trying to shut out) everything else in my mind so that all that’s there, in the world, in this moment, is the pain in my forehead. It’s a wonderful exercise, because when you’re in a couple you can talk about shared experiences – dinners, films, phone conversations that were on speakerphone – but how shared are they, really? How much of anything is fifty-fifty? Because at dinner one person may have ordered one extra glass of wine and at the cinema afterwards that extra glass may have prompted a toilet break in which they missed a three second violin motif that tied together mysterious events with the character they have in common.

And of course the thing with a phone call is that it’s a lot more complicated with three people.

But right now, if I press harder, he’ll feel it harder too. That’s shared. That’s a non-negotiable fifty-fifty. The pressure – and the pain that belongs to it – is finally sort of validated now that it’s physical. For the first time since this began there’s a relief in me, because he can understand how much it hurts now. His breath smells of something meaty and garlic and stale – I have never been that oblivious. Maybe one day in the long-long-distant future there will be somebody who loves me to the extent where I don’t have to think about whether I’m in an appropriate situation to breathe through my mouth.

Look at me, talking about ‘one days’. How five years ago.

I would guess my record to be around four seconds. However, I can do the nothingness thing several times in a row; so in every ten seconds, I only have to see her face three or four times. It’s got his hands around it and her eyes are so brown. She’s smiling and it’s a real smile because when he leans in to kiss her it remains. Behind my doors, behind my back, behind my eyes she is there, smiling.

There are these words on my tongue and I can feel them gaining weight. The deeper we push into this closed-eye darkness, and the more I struggle to focus on only nothingness – the more these words pick-up momentum. They roll around, moving from the back of my dry throat to the skin on my lips and back again. My head is pulsing and I’m not sure if that’s the pressure of his forehead or the pressure of the trapped words. Something has to give, something always has to give and everything in my body cringes with premature disappointment because of course it’s going to be me. I swallow, and swallow again, hoping that the words will sink back into me with the saliva. But they’re too big, now. They’re too big for my mouth and they’re absolutely too big for my heart. They’re itching and burning, they want out of the blackness and out of the silence. They want out of the glass tumbler I use against the door when he phones her from the bathroom and the shower is on.

“Is it her or me?”

 

 

 

 

Picture sourced from: http://www.katerawlings.com

Her Lovely Hands

Samantha wasn’t a sharer. She was not a bad person by any stretch of the imagination – but what was hers was hers. If she purchased a portion of French fries and you asked for one, she would apologise and say no – and she wouldn’t feel bad about it. You’d watch her continue to eat the hot, salty strips of potato one by one (for her grace outweighed her greed), and if you were weak or hungry or heaven forbid both, you might ask her,

“Just one, Samantha, please.”

And then if she liked you – if she thought that in that moment you’re friendship was worth something more than the two pound coin in her purse whose back stylishly celebrated 200 years slavery free – she’d buy you your very own portion.

And yet here she was not caring. Lying on only nine inches of her bed, conscious of her chest moving as she breathed in fear of disturbing the green-haired woman next to her. The woman’s body faced the wall and Samantha was pleased because it meant that she could stare at her freely. She’d never really had the motive or the opportunity before. Her green silk blouse didn’t actually look like silk up close; it was probably a fabric mix that was less expensive. She was never one for wastage. The only skin of her Samantha could see was the woman’s hand, which was curled around her shoulder. She was holding herself. She was the best holder in the world.

How would Samantha’s life have been different if it wasn’t for those hands? They were under her chin when she sulked, on her forehead when she was ill, clasping her own when she was nervous, on her knee when they really should have been on the gearstick. In her immobility, the woman’s hands had swollen with fat and her skin (softened with Nivea each night) was flecked with the brown of old age. Among all these signs of delicate deterioration were five florescent green fingernails painted to perfection with an over-the-top gloss that shone even in the lacking light. She always told Samantha that even if she didn’t want her nails to be green, she was trapped in it. Painting them the same colour for forty years meant even when stripped of the polish, they were never stripped of the polish.

Samantha had never seen her sleep before, which was really rather strange considering how often it had been the other way around. Because sleeping is vulnerability – isn’t it? And that made Samantha feel a little uneasy.

‘I love you, Samantha,’ she would sing as Samantha’s tired eyes gave in, ‘and my love will never die.’

Samantha couldn’t think of any songs whose lyrics had a Cecily.

The icy air blew in through the window above Samantha’s bed. She might have been imagining things, but just for a second, the woman’s hand squeezed tighter around her shoulder. Samantha got out of bed and tiptoed over to her radiator which held her green bath towel. It was soft and warm and she couldn’t have imagined anything more comforting in that moment. She draped it over the sleeping woman before resuming her nine inches.

‘I love you, Samantha,’ she heard.

 

 

Standing Order

Life has been so kind to you, Sammy. You don’t understand now, but you will learn. I hope you will learn because it would kill me if you never understood how hard it is for me to ask you for something like this. I am embarrassed, Sam. That I know you will never understand – embarrassment is one of those things you will have prepared for; one of those human things that you can buy out of with the right currency and Lord knows you have enough of that.

It has taken a lot for me to accept that who you are is not a product of how I raised you. When you sit down in the evenings – when your family has gone to bed in their silk bed-sheets and whiskey rolls around your tongue as you notice at the new way in which the maid has started to organise those beautiful designer cushions: you feel grateful – that’s got nothing to do with me. I imagine I wouldn’t even make the list of polite acknowledgements. Or maybe I would – you’re etiquette never ceases to astound me.

I would resent you so much when you were a teenager. I hope you never know how it feels to be undermined by someone who holds the potential to make your dreams. I used to wish you’d hate me. I used to will you to stand up to me, shout at me, tell me that I was a useless hippy pothead. I needed you so badly to lose your temper. But you never did. You just got quieter and quieter – and my instinct was to make the noise to counter-act it, but that was never going to work with you.

I assumed for a long time that you had no friends because of who you were with me. I realise now that that was never the case, was it? You just never told me. Were you scared of what I’d do? Scared that I’d feed them cold baked beans? Although that wouldn’t make sense because you’re never scared.

I need money and I would like you to lend me some.  You will not, I’m sure, be surprised to hear that I have exhausted every other alternative. I am also going to ask you to save me the conversation of asking me what it is for. Or how much I am in debt by. I will pay interest on your money and there’s nothing else that you need to know.

Tell me that I don’t have an interesting face. Say that the colours of the clothes I wear wouldn’t accurately translate into a picture. Or tell me the truth as to why you never once asked to photograph me. I’ve seen some of your collections – you do portraits, mainly, don’t you? Thousands of stained lips and lined faces and grey roots – and are the smiles real? Do you really get them to smile, Sam? (How do you do that?).

Five thousand pounds is what I would like.  One dinner out for you – isn’t it? Starting in April I will pay you back seventy-five pounds a week. I would like you to get back to me on that. I can save the re-payments, if you’d prefer, and give to you all at once, only because I do not know how to set-up a standing order but I can find out from Uncle Sean or somebody.

It’s a lot to ask and I am acknowledging that. But it’s not a lot to give.

My phone number hasn’t changed. You could text me if you like.

If your children know me then send my love.